Opinion: Macron flirted with the far right. And France lost

Unfortunately for the French electorate, Macron failed to deliver on that promise to stem the rise of the far right. Following her victory in 2017, the political landscape changed dramatically, with Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party being the main beneficiary.

Now, days away from Sunday’s French presidential election, Macron faces Le Pen again in a rematch of their 2017 contest – and this time Le Pen is riding a belated wave of support that is giving him a breather behind the advance of Macron.

During his first term, the Macron administration flirted with the same right-wing themes that fueled Le Pen’s rise, including Islam, security and immigration. Indeed, the entire political landscape in France is not immune to the lure of policies that have profound effects on anyone who was not born White and on French soil.

Whether or not Macron retains his seat, the effects of the creeping acceptance of the premises that fuel Le Pen’s rise will be profound.

The focus on French Muslims, in particular, has been marked by a steady increase in vote scare propaganda over the past 30 years. As successive waves of terrorist attacks in France had galvanized public opinion since the mid-1980s, state authorities attempted to create a framework to oversee Muslim religious practices and organization, through the idea to create a “French Islam”.

But over the past 10 years, the threat has expanded from public safety to include Muslims seen as an existential threat to the cultural identity of so-called “traditional France.”

Seeing an opportunity to ride a wave of discontent, politicians pushed measures instrumentalizing the once liberal concept of laïcité (the French form of secularism), including banning face coverings and burkinis in public spaces.

While Macron is seen as an alternative to the far right, he has also attempted to play both sides – putting on a liberal face to international audiences, while quietly embracing the very policies the far right has championed at home. .

To lead this charge, Macron appointed Gérald Darmanin to the Interior Ministry, one of France’s most powerful ministries. Darmanin polarized the electorate with unwavering support for the French police, gaining strong support from influential police unions while alienating much of the left.

Additionally, critics accuse Darmanin of playing into anti-Muslim hatred with inflammatory rhetoric and actions. In a stark illustration of the Macron administration’s rightward shift, Darmanin last year accused Le Pen of being “soft on Islam” amid debate over the law strengthening respect for the principles of the Republic ( anti-separatism law) of August 2021. .

The anti-separatism bill was part of Macron’s strategy ahead of the 2022 presidential election to cut the far-right’s veils a bit.

Under the terms of the law, non-profit organizations are subject to the signing of a “republican commitment contract” – by which they undertake to respect freedom, equality, fraternity, human dignity and public order. Consequently, public authorities can arbitrarily refuse, claim reimbursement or withdraw support from associations that they deem not to respect these values.

Some associations fear that the core of their activities (such as support for undocumented migrants or human rights activist groups denouncing discriminatory government policies) will be seen as a violation of public order and therefore , lose their funding.

Facing a fractured field on the left, analysts predicted that Macron was trying to lure some right-wing voters away from Le Pen by taking action on some of the far-right’s core issues. Indeed, Darmanin said in February 2022 that he wanted “far-right voters to vote for us (Macron’s party)”.

Meanwhile, Le Pen has done his own version of a facelift, downplaying the harsher elements of his platform, while refusing to concede the underlying ideology pioneered by his party over the years. last 30 years.

Her campaign promises include changing the Constitution to restrict immigration, family reunification and asylum which she sees as a threat to France’s identity. Le Pen’s manifesto also contains measures for a legal distinction between “French stock” and “others”, for access to employment or social benefits.
Le Pen also announced plans to extend the headscarf ban in public spaces on the grounds of protecting secularism and the 1905 law on the separation of church and state. Secularism was understood for most of the 20th century as imposing neutrality on the state and its officials, while guaranteeing religious freedom and freedom of conscience for individuals.
France is on a dangerous collision course with its Muslim population

But since the 1990s, the understanding of secularism has evolved and has been interpreted as limiting religious expressions, more specifically Muslim ones. This was mainly implemented through legislation restricting the wearing of visible religious symbols, in particular the wearing of the headscarf by some Muslim women.

Macron sometimes unwittingly feeds into this narrative, once asking a young French Muslim woman wearing a headscarf whether she wore a headscarf “by choice” or “by force” and complimenting her when she confirmed it was by choice. .

While Macron’s statement was disconcerting, as he is unlikely to have asked such a question of a Catholic nun wearing a veil, a Jew wearing a yarmulke, or a Sikh wearing a turban, the president is clearly trying to make backtracking on the actions of his administration and pretending that measures like the anti-separatism law never happened.

Once again, Muslims, and in particular Muslim women, are instrumentalized for electoral purposes. No matter who wins the election, the far right has already won. They shape the agenda of French political debate. If Le Pen doesn’t win this time, she or someone like her will most likely win another time.

French Muslims are tired of being pawns in this political game. Muslims represent around 8.8% of the French population, but occupy almost all political and media discourse, while their voices are excluded from the conversation.
Islam and immigration are topics that the far right loves to use for their agenda, and unfortunately Macron, and those who came before him, have fallen into this trap. If Macron wins, he will have to make amends with those he has affected. And he and his administration will have to stop treating their French Muslim citizens as if they were a population that had to be tamed.

There is a need to proactively and constructively engage with Muslims, implement anti-discrimination programs and stop weaponizing secularism as a tool of political identity. Muslims are simply not the threat that some politicians and pundits claim to be. France must allow Muslims to be full French citizens, to express their identity openly and honestly, in a way that is both true to their faith and unambiguously French.

Whether Macron or Le Pen wins this weekend or not, there is no doubt that the political landscape is changing under the feet of French voters.

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